Aviation Safety and related fields.
A Firm Resolve - A History of SAA accidents and incidents 1934-1987. (ISBN 987 0620 303 231).
Perfect Storms - Notable Civil Aviation Accidents 1994 - 2011. (Currently being completed)
Resolved-The story of a Boeing called Helderberg (E-Book. Releasing November 2016. A link will be placed here on publication.)
Research and article on the accident to C9-CAA, President Samora Machel's aircraft
Accident Synopsis of G-ARUD - Caledonian Airways accident in Douala, Cameroon, March 1962.
A FIRM RESOLVE
375 pages, soft cover. First published 2007 and to be reprinted in 2012.
Background to the writing of A Firm Resolve,
The primary point of departure,
TV use of the book,
What possibility of revisions?
2014 Update - The Board could not have covered it all
If you wish to buy this book click here (opens a link to The Aviation Shop) or send an e-mail to me. It will cost the same in either event but the first link is better for international readers as the retailer involved specialises in on-line ordering.
Background to the writing of A Firm Resolve
This book took more than 15 years of research and investigation. Visits to various airline manufacturers, the offices of state agencies, numerous state and press archives, aviation museums in different countries, airlines and families of the accident victims were required to find all the data on the public record about the 22 accidents related in the book.
In addition I spent many hours clarifying my understanding of civil aviation procedures up at the sharp-end of the many airliners I traveled on. Furthermore, I spent many hundreds of hours in discussion with aviation administrators, airline officials, training Captains and pilots from many different disciplines discussing the book and its contents while in draft form.
Many pilots from different airlines (and some air forces) all made inputs and confirmed the veracity of procedures noted in the reports I had read or they validated my understanding of the conclusions drawn by the investigators dealing with the accidents described in the book.
The book itself, however, was started in earnest shortly after the publication of the official inquiry into the loss of SA295 in 1991. The germination of the project, though, took place in 1985 when the SAA Boeing 747-SP, Registration ZS-SPE named Hantam was involved in an accident near Vienna. I heard about the events from friends in the airline's technical division but found little or no information in the press. I thought that if I was curious, then others may well have been as well and started digging out any information about the event that I could locate.
1987 saw the loss of SA295 and there can be few (if any) South Africans who were aware of the events that Saturday morning in November who did not share a feeling of disbelief at the news that the aircraft had crashed.
The inquiry into SA295 took place during a period spanning many years and the eventual report appeared to create an uproar in certain quarters. My experience of the time was, firstly, to take up the Department of Transport on its offer of a free copy of the official report. I read it from cover to cover and was astounded at how the reality of the official findings espoused in the report differed so markedly from the many press clippings I had gathered on the event. It appeared that the reporters had largely made up their own interpretation of the events or that various unofficial sources had been accorded more weight than the official findings. This approach even extended to the official findings after they were published.
Certainly a simple, step by step synopsis of the known, undisputed events leading to the loss of the airliner was missing. I decided to get sight of all the investigation notes and official reports that I could possibly lay hands on and to note down - initially for my own understanding - a timeline of events and actions involving that aircraft and ZS-SPE.
Once I did this I was approached by some of my media colleagues who wished to clarify their own understanding of the events as depicted in the official reports by reading my summaries. Their unanimous approval of the style and approach which they found lucid and easy to understand - combined with questions about other SAA accidents and their stories - set the project in motion to research and document the official findings of all the previous SAA Accidents. (Top of page)
The primary point of departure - official investigator's findings only.
A point of departure which was pegged right from the start was to acknowledge that the many disciplines involved in aviation could not possibly be fully understood by newspaper reporters or the average member of the flying public.
Furthermore, while I have had a life-long passion for aviation and have read anything on the topic that ever crossed my path in addition to being closely involved with jet bombers, propeller aircraft and the discipline surrounding flight safety during my time in the SAAF and afterwards when I paid to train for a Private Pilot's Licence, I could likewise not aspire to total knowledge of all aspects involved in an accident - from turbines to hydraulics, navigation, crew management, weight and balance, specific fuel burn, crew duty cycles, dispatch pressures, yield management, routing procedures, specific wing-loadings and much, much more. I could broaden my knowledge - Yes. I would, however, never obtain the in-depth, intuitive understanding of all aspects of airliner operations that comes with being a crew member on the actual flight-deck or the actual designer of - as but some examples - systems such as a wiring loom or flap actuation system.
My body of knowledge and my research library and contacts in aviation have, however, served to aid my understanding of certain technical documents presented to the investigators of any accident and my subsequent narration of their content and import in the long chain of events that afflicts any airliner that crashes.
However, I would have to accept that the authorities and officials appointed to the various boards of inquiry had a greater body of specialist knowledge than I or any other lay person could profess to have mastered. Thus I decided that only the findings and opinions of the officially appointed enquiry members and their unanimous conclusions and final reports would form the basis of the book.
Any theories not presented to the official inquiry hearings and entered into the official reports or the undisputed public record would not form part of the synopses. I still hold to this view today and am following the same approach in my latest book - Perfect Storms.
Having stated this, however, I must clarify the addition of two additional chapters to the synopsis of the Helderberg inquiry contained in A Firm Resolve. Firstly, due to the relatively small collection of data available (and it was more sparse as I went further back into history) all the other accidents have two chapters only - Synopsis and investigation. The Helderberg inquiry took many years and generated masses of data - all of which (including the court of inquiry transcripts) was available to me to read.
It made sense, therefore to document the events surrounding the loss of SA295 in more complete details and in a similar fashion to the sequence in which they unfolded. The actual flight, the search at sea with the attendant recovery of wreckage and then the official inquiry proceedings followed by the formal findings. The initial three chapter approach was, therefore, simply due to the events and the volume of data involved versus earlier accidents.
Following the discussion of the three chapters originally written at the time (1994) with many aviation experts, a further chapter was added that highlighted the tensions I had uncovered during my research occasioned by certain vested interests' pressure on the board on inquiry and the airline to protect their commercial equity.
This was accomplished by insisting in the omission or down-playing of any findings of fault with the design or certification of the aircraft which had not been proven as deficient or in need of remediation beyond any possible doubt. I felt this additional chapter was needed to highlight this practice at modern inquiry proceedings. I did so as, in my view, the logical end result of repeated capitulation to such pressures endangers the entire impartiality of accident investigations. Sadly, my latest work has brought to light exactly how apposite those concerns were.
The undisputed facts about the loss of SA295, however, were that the aircraft had an in-flight fire and this led to the crash of the airliner with the sea. Furthermore, the fire-detection and fighting facilities on board were woefully (perhaps shamefully?) inadequate and that situation needed to be addressed to satisfy the primary raison d'etre of any accident investigation - how do we stop it happening again?
When the book was first printed in a limited run in 1995, many of the events that would subsequently come to form the further public record on SA295 had not yet unfolded. Prime among these was a special investigation - ostensibly by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee - into the events surrounding the loss of SA295.
That this apparent investigation was no more than a one-sided presentation by an individual who is not an aviation accident investigator and the subsequent American courtroom style of hostile questioning by this individual of those who gave their time to attend the alleged hearing is a matter of public record. You can read the full transcript of those proceedings here.
Stick with it and when you have read it all consider if the proceedings - from the presentation of the alleged facts to be investigated - to the grilling of the witnesses, can by any stretch of the imagination be termed unbiased, logical, thorough and aimed at anything other than a predetermined result. Certainly it does not appear to have been conducted along any of the ICAO guidelines for accident investigation! The late Robert Kirby, writing for the Mail and Guardian, made some observations on this process - read his article here. Another absorbing article by Robert Kirby is visible here.
The hearings, however, generated a lot of interest and thus it seemed apposite to include an additional section dedicated to the main theories espoused at these hearings and reported in the media when the book was printed up in volume in 2006. The work of the revision was completed in that year but the preparation for printing and production only came to fruition in the first quarter of 2007. (Top of page)
TV use of my work.
Plan-C productions, a contractor for the Afrikaans South African Pay-TV channel KykNet, approached me while they were researching a series of programmes that documented people's experiences of key, newsworthy events in South African national life.
The series is called Onthou (Remember) and sought to re-tell the events through the experiences of those who actually lived through, or were involved with, the events being documented. I was interviewed on camera to recount the synopses of flights SA228 (The 707 crash in Windhoek in 1968) and SA295. The full programmes are available on DVD from various retailers including Look And Listen (South Africa) and can be viewed on You Tube at this link (for SA228) and (for SA295). The programmes are largely in Afrikaans and a transcript for the SA228 (Windhoek B707) accident is available for download here.
Other participants on the episodes told of their personal experiences at the time. I found it significant (and sad), however, that none of the airline or board of inquiry officials involved were included in the programme on SA295 despite the fact that some were available and had undertaken pioneering aviation safety work. On inquiry I discovered that this was, perhaps, due to demands made by certain parties that such officials not be included.
If such a scenario is accurate, it is doubly sad as the entire goal of accident investigation is to find facts without fear or favour simply to save lives in the future. It certainly robbed the public at large of hearing about the amazing, pioneering work undertaken in the search and recovery which still forms part of the investigation art today.
I have no doubt that the development of partisan views and pressure groups surrounding an accident does not further the noble goal of getting at the truth without fea ror favour. Indeed the very creation of an adversarial "them and us" set of encampments significantly reduces the prospect of future co-operation and proportionately increases the amount of corporate obfuscation by manufacturers and regulatory authorities - placing the simple, unvarnished truth of accidents even further beyond the scope of simple articulation.
(Top of page)
What possibility of revisions?
No published work is - despite careful editing by many people - ever entirely error-free. From simple typographical errors to the reliance on published sources that are later proven to be erroneous, errors can creep into the most carefully researched work. A Firm Resolve has some errors of a typographical and nomenclature nature. These are corrected in the 2012 reprint and older copies are now shipped with erratum sheets addressing these issues. To view the know errata, click here. (If you know of any others, get in touch.)
Should the public record entered into the database of the Civil Aviation Authority or the South African Departments of Transport or Justice ever be updated with new, factual and proven information that has a significant bearing on the known facts surrounding any of the accidents in A Firm Resolve, a similar approach will, of course, be adopted. Erratum sheets and/or addenda will be produced and also published on this site if required.
Until such time, however, as factual, irrefutable and conclusive new evidence is placed on the public record, I am satisfied that the work of the book as envisaged and crafted has been completed. It shall, therefore, remain as it is - a simplified record in narrative style of the official findings and recommendations made regarding future flight safety by the official boards of inquiry into each particular accident documented between the covers. (Top of page)
2014 Update - The Board could not have covered it all
I have been researching a new book since 2010. During this period I have discovered large amounts of information - scattered in various archives - relating to in-flight fires aboard airliners.
This collection of data and the aggregated knowledge of the causes since 1987 have led me to make deductions about the most likely cause of this one notable fire aboard SA295.
Given the direction my research has taken in this regard, I am now of the view that the original board of inquiry could not have properly covered the investigation of the fire due to the simple fact that it was devoid of the combined record that has built up in the interim. They were too busy looking for a fire within the cargo to consider one above it.
If a modern team of investigators, unshackled from loyalties to manufacturers, were to re-investigate the loss of the Helderberg, I am convinced the cause would be rapidly determined.
In keeping with the offer of the Ministry of Transport made after the TRC hearings, I have forwarded my data and reference material to the current minister of Transport, The Rt. Hon D Pieters.
She has sent it on to the CAA.
Time will tell.
You can read more about my research - view the evidence and consider my new thinking about the fire as well as my motivation for a new look at the available material here
If you like rapid overviews, you can read an article published by Politicsweb that summarises my analysis here.
An extract of the chapters of A Firm Resolve dealing with the loss of, search for, recovery and investigation of SA295 is available here.
(Top of page)
Death of a President - The crash of Tupolev 134-A, C9-CAA on 19 October 1986
Following the article on the Helderberg published by Politicsweb, I was requested to take another look at an equally contentious accident - that which led to the death of President Samora Machel of Mozambique.
At the time an international team of experts drawn form Russia, Mozambique and South Africa performed a factual investigation. The pertinent aviation facts were agreed between all the parties.
However, given the charged political atmosphere in Southern Africa at the time, as well as the political mileage to be gained from blaming anyone save the aircrew (Which Russia supplied and would not implicate as less than competent during the height of the cold war) or the infrastructure and maintenance (In the case of Mozambique), the accident has been the subject of many rumours and apparent re-investigations all alleging a plot by the previous SOuth African government to kill the president of its neighbour.
That none of the new investigations have been able to find any supporting evidence to implicate South Africa in a plot to deliberately lead the airliner of-track and make it impact the hills of the Eastern South African border region, all that is left are the actual facts that were originally uncovered.
The article may be viewed here.
In due course, extracts from the memoirs of one of the investigators will be placed in the public domain on this site as a PDF document.
Accident Synopsis of G-ARUD - Caledonian Airways accident in Douala, Cameroon, March 1962.
One of the major pay-backs for all my research and writing on aviation accidents has been to satisfy my own curiosity about exactly how and why (especially in the modern era) systems fail and disasters occur.
A side benefit - and an infinitely more rewarding one - has been the gratitude of relatives of the victims of many of the accidents I have written about who have found solace in the simple truth about what is known about the last moments of their loved ones.
There are some others who cannot find this solace, no matter what they learn and perhaps they need to carry on searching for a truth that rests with them as individuals. The majority of those with whom I have had contact, however, tell of being able to put the deaths of their loved ones to rest after reading the synopses I have written.
One such encounter took place in December 2011 when I met the son of a couple who had died aboard Caledonian Airways flight 153 on 4 March 1962. He and his siblings have spent nearly 50 years seeking simple answers to the loss of their parents.
They have avidly watched Air Crash investigation programmes hoping that the one flight above all others that commands their interest will be covered. Alas, however, the loss of a charter flight in an African country so long ago is no longer newsworthy.
On specific request, therefore, I marshalled my network of resources and dug into the data about the flight in order to prepare a synopsis of the flight and the investigation for this family.
As with all other work in this arena, I do not lay any claim to have discovered anything new on the accident. All the information was available - but not readily so. To put all the disparate documents together and to reconstruct the events of the day requires knowledge of sources and procedures which are not readily apparent or available to the layman. That by doing so one can assist relatives of the victims is a privilege.
As the synopsis does not fit into any particular category of work currently underway, it is placed in the public domain on this site as a memoriam to this particular family's parents and the other passengers and crew aboard the flight.
A text from one of the siblings after he had received the work highlights just how much of a healing tool this work can be.
"Mark, I have just printed out the document and have had copies made and bound for all three of us. Your work has helped me to heal a big hurt that has been with me my whole life. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your efforts."
How can any financial compensation be worth more than this?
Click here to read about Caledonian Airways flight CA153.